Schoolchildren have always grumbled about having to go to school, but they have an easy life today compared to their ancestors in  Shakespeare’s time. In those days, as the timetable for a typical Elizabethan grammar school indicates, children used to get up very early to be in their places in class in time for the first  lesson at six o’clock.

During the day they had three breaks, but altogether they spent over nine hours a day at their lessons, six days a week, including Saturdays, and had only one afternoon off for games. To us, it seems incredible that teachers found it necessary to justify the rest  periods to parents, who often thought they were a waste of time!

When they first went to school, children were taught to read, write and count. But in later years teachers used to devote almost all the time to two subjects, Latin and rhetoric, the art of self-expression in one’s own language. Modern educationalists and today’s children would have been horrified by not only the monotony of the teaching method but also the competitive nature of the school and its discipline. Teachers encouraged children to arrive on time in the morning.

When they arrived, the teacher would place the first students who came to class at the front seats and the last who came had to sit at the back of  the class. But the children used to change places in the course of each day, because those who failed to answer a question were sent to the back. Discipline was a controversial subject among teachers, but the argument was not about whether children should be physically punished, as it has been in recent years, but about how often they should be beaten and for what reasons.

We do not know for certain what Shakespeare, the most remarkable pupil of one of these schools, thought about the subject. In one of his plays, however, he has a Latin lesson, where the pupil, a small boy called William, shows more common-sense and imagination than the  teacher.

According to his friend, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare was not very good at Latin or Greek. Jonson does not say anything about Shakespeare’s performance in rhetoric classes, but he must have been exceptional at rhetoric. Nevertheless, he would surely have been happier in a modern school, where children are encouraged to develop  their gifts for self-expression, instead of learning all the names of the rhetorical techniques by heart.


A. What does the following refer to?
‘they’ (line 15):

B. Mark the best choice.

1. Line 32, ‘the subject’ refers to .

a) the Latin lesson c) being a remarkable student b) discipline d) having common-sense and imagination

2. When you grumble (line 2) about something, you .

a) have to do it c) complain about it b) find it easy to do d) compare it to something else

3. A ‘controversial’ (line 27) subject is one which .

a) punishes children c) causes discussion b) everybody agrees on d) causes discipline problems

4. The first paragraph is mainly about .

a) Shakespeare’s time compared to today’s world

b) Elizabethan grammar school timetables

c) the attitudes of teachers and children in Shakespeare’s time

d) children going to Elizabethan grammar schools

5. Today’s educationalists would have .

a) been horrified by the lack of discipline at the schools in Shakespeare’s time

b) found the dullness of the Elizabethan teaching system shocking

c) been delighted by the competitive nature of the Elizabethan schools

d) enjoyed teaching Latin and rhetoric in Shakespeare’s time

6. What determined the place of a student in an Elizabethan school?

a) The number of seats at the front and back of the class.

b) Teachers’ preferences for physical punishment.

c) The type of class and the rest periods.

d) The time of arrival in class and the ability to give correct answers to questions.

C. Mark the statements as True (T) or False (F).


1. In Shakespeare’s time, although students had three breaks during the day, they had a very busy schedule to follow.

2. In an Elizabethan school, reading, writing, counting, Latin and rhetoric were considered equally important.

3. In the past, teachers believed that physical punishment was necessary for disciplining children.

4. Shakespeare was exceptionally good at self-expression as well as Latin and Greek.

5. In today’s modern schools, rhetoric is taught in the same way as in Shakespeare’s time.

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